In the last three decades, inclusive disability legislation has led to an increasing number of students with disabilities entering higher education. However, barriers to the full participation of students remain. In the latest article co-authored by Mario Biggeri, Disability in higher education: assessing student’s capabilities in two Italian universities using structured focus group discussion (Studies on Higher Education, 2019), researchers draw on the Capability Approach to analyse the experiences of students with disabilities to assess their capabilities in academic life.
Since the 1950s, international organizations have been increasingly promoting educational settings that are equal and open to diversity. These positions, expressed in UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, have been recently reaffirmed in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Thus, like other European countries, Italy sought to design and implement legislation that focuses on the inclusion of students with disabilities in higher education.
Even if the protection of the right to a university education for students with disabilities is recognised and most universities provide students with support services, studies continue to show that people with disabilities encounter difficulties in academic settings. The challenges that they face include architectural barriers – despite improvements in physical infrastructure; while other studies highlight obstacles related to teaching, learning, and assessment. Especially when it comes to lectures and classes, coursework and exams who survey both disabled and non-disabled students, evidence suggests the experience of students with disabilities is greater in terms of the amount of time required for coursework, note taking and reading course material. Interestingly, however, many of the challenges that characterise the academic experience of students with disabilities are also shared by those without impairments.
In this study, thus, authors have adopted participatory methods, in particular structured focus group discussions (SFGDs), and put them into practice to assess the capabilities (such as the ability to access the classroom, learn or socialise with peers) of students with disabilities in the Italian context.
Few studies have investigated the experiences of students with disabilities in Italy while considering their perspective. Researchers have therefore involved in different SFGDs fifty students from two different universities Padua and Turin which have a long tradition of providing services and accommodations to students with disabilities.
Two major findings emerged from the data. First the essential value, in the experience of the students, of being able to use educational spaces, move around off campus and socialise with others; and, second, the tendency of capability achievements to vary according to context and type of disability, especially for students with visual disabilities, who experience relatively lower levels of mobility and respect.